With shaking hands, Anne raised the newspaper to scrutinise again the ominous words.
‘No,’ she whispered, emotion gripping her throat. ‘Oh, Frederick, not this…’ Her voice broke and the tears she had tried so hard to hold back spilled down her cheeks as she bent over in her seat, her body shaking.
How long the torrent of emotion lasted, Anne was unsure, but eventually, she raised her head.
‘Just breathe. Try to breathe,’ she intoned, taking small gulps of air, then sinking back into her chair, the newspaper finally falling from her grasp.
Anne stared at her hands, stained with the print from the paper, which was damp from her outpouring of grief. She ought to wash them, repair the damage to her face, but her legs felt as though they would not support her.
Wearily, she stood, holding onto the arm of the chair, then stepped towards her bedside cabinet. Pulling out an old wooden box, which had once belonged to her mother, she unlocked it and stared at its contents: a couple of letters bound in ribbon, a faded rose, pressed between fine paper, some lines of poetry, and a small pebble shaped almost like a heart. This was all she possessed of her brief months with Frederick Wentworth.
Anne lifted out the small bundle of letters, pressing it to her lips as the memories made with him replayed in her mind. There were precious few, but she clung to them, forcing out the horror of what his last moments might have been like. To no avail; Anne’s heart betrayed her, winging its way towards his own, longing to have seen him just one more time, and wondering—foolish though the thought was—if Frederick had held any thoughts of her when the end came.
A knock on the servant’s door roused her, and Anne quickly returned the letters to the box as Elise entered with a tray.
‘Miss Bennet said you were unwell, Miss Anne.’ She placed the tray on a small table, and Anne wiped her eyes on her shawl. She had no appetite and no wish to be seen in her present state.
Elise approached her warily. ‘May I fetch you anything? Would you like me to dress your hair? You have become a little…’
‘Dishevelled.’ Anne tried to pull herself together. ‘Thank you, Elise. I will tidy myself. You may go.’
Alone again, Anne approached the looking glass in the fading light. Her reflection stared back: pale cheeks, a pink nose, and clouded eyes, with wisps of hair hanging about her face. Then, she turned her back. What did it signify?
Ignoring the tray, Anne tried not to notice the discarded newspaper as she returned to the chair beside the fire. Perhaps she ought to try and see the Reverend Wentworth on the morrow, before he departed the West Country? They had rarely spoken in the intervening years, though he was the actual reason Frederick had even come into the county back in the year six. Did the reverend blame her for his brother’s never coming to stay again? Whatever his feelings, he had clearly received the intelligence of his brother’s demise much as Anne had.
Anne’s gaze drifted to the flames in the hearth and, hugging her shawl more closely about her, she curled up in her seat and tried to immerse herself in her happiest memories, those of walking in the grove on the arm of her commander.
Elizabeth could not escape soon enough from the dining room and, knowing both Sir Walter and Miss Elliot had no time for her presence, her excuse to call in on Anne was welcomed by all.
‘Do wish her well.’ Sir Walter waved a cavalier hand. ‘Should she remain indisposed on the morrow, I shall summon Robinson to attend her.’
Miss Elliot yawned, as she did with annoying frequency. ‘I am certain she merely took cold for being so foolish as to walk out in this foul weather, Father. It is her own fault if she picks up a chill.’
Sir Walter was quite appalled at this and held his napkin to his face. ‘We do not want it to become a fever. Think of the detriment to one’s looks.’
Elizabeth glared at them both, not that they noticed, having returned their attention to their meal. It took all her self-control not to tell them what she thought of their carelessness towards one of the sweetest people she had ever known. Instead, she turned on her heel and left the room, hurrying up the stairs to Anne’s chamber.
Anne responded to Elizabeth’s call through the door, and she entered to find her friend much as she had left her: wan and listless in the fireside chair.
‘Dearest Anne.’ Elizabeth hurried across the room to kneel beside her, taking one of her hands in her own and rubbing it to instil some warmth into the cold skin.
‘I am so thankful you are here, Lizzy. My family has no comprehension… had no time for…’ Anne’s voice wavered.
Elizabeth adjusted her position on the floor. ‘I suspected there had been someone before now. I am saddened for you.’
Anne lifted a listless hand, which fell back onto her lap. ‘It was years ago.’
‘And you care yet. Was it—did he not return your affection, or was it never even declared?’
Anne lowered her head and stared at her hands, then raised solemn eyes to Elizabeth’s.
‘I had a short attachment in my nineteenth year. He… Frederick,’ her voice faltered as she spoke his name. ‘Captain Wentworth is…was the Reverend Wentworth’s brother and came to make some stay with him. We were soon acquainted and rapidly attached to each other. He asked for my hand.’ Anne smiled, her eyes distant. ‘I could not speak my acceptance fast enough. We were to be the happiest of couples. No one could have more felicity.’ The smile faded, as did the burst of animation.
There was no answer.
Elizabeth spoke gently, unsure whether to leave her friend in peace, but then she straightened in her seat, her melancholy drawing Elizabeth’s compassion.
‘I was persuaded against continuing with the engagement, and much to my later regret, I conceded.’
‘Oh, my poor dear girl.’ Elizabeth squeezed Anne’s hand gently.
‘My father was disappointed—no, more than that. He was angry, claiming it was not a good enough match, that it was too soon, I was too young to make such a commitment, and he would do nothing for us.’
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. ‘He would withhold your portion?’
‘It was all I could assume, from his saying such. Though Mama told me once that I had been well provided for outside of a formal dowry. I suspect that was more down to her father than my own.’ Anne met Elizabeth’s gaze. ‘Money meant little to me, but Frederick had yet to distinguish himself in the Navy, only having achieved the grade of commander. My father believes the institution has its utility but he resents it being the means of bringing people of obscure birth into undue distinction, that it might raise them in honours to which they had no right to aspire.’ She sighed. ‘If such ascendance was detrimental, imagine how he received the intelligence of Frederick having no distinguished connections to assist him in further climbing the ranks. Lady Russell pressed the point that his career was dangerous, a precarious profession with no guarantee of success or financial return. He was ashore at the time because he had no ship, thus no income. They said it was all too much of a risk, but in truth, they felt he was beneath the family, an unsuitable match for an Elliot.’
‘It must have been a heart-breaking decision.’
Anne nodded. ‘For us both. Frederick was angry, and I do not blame him.’ She held Elizabeth’s hand tightly, her expression earnest. ‘I could not have rescinded—let him go—if I did not think I acted for his benefit. To attach himself to another at such a time, his future so uncertain…a wife may have become a burden he could ill afford. It may have hindered his opportunities, his career.’
‘And did the captain gain all he had hoped for in his profession?’
‘Yes, ten-fold, though he has not wed.’
Elizabeth was surprised. ‘How do you know this?’
‘I followed Frederick’s progression by consulting the Navy lists—Steele’s and the Navy Chronicle. At first, I could hardly look, breathless in dread of seeing he had perished or that he was listed newly wed, but beyond his promotions, his name never featured other than when he distinguished himself at sea…’ Anne’s voice faded, and Elizabeth could imagine where they had gone: to the bottom of the ocean.
There was a long silence, but then Anne inhaled deeply and lifted her head to meet Elizabeth’s compassionate look.
‘Do not be uneasy for me, Lizzy. It is a shock, and I am saddened for him, will grieve for him and his family, but in all truth, Frederick was lost to me the day I changed my mind, and he stormed from the Hall.’ Anne gestured weakly with her free hand. ‘We have never been in company since, but had it been so, we would have been strangers to one another.’
‘You are stoic. More so than I could be in such circumstances.’
Anne shook her head. ‘Though I cannot fault the logic of those who had a hand in my decision, my regret has never left me, and had our paths crossed even within months of our parting, I would have begged him to take me back. I will mourn his loss forever, but I have learned to live with it, built myself anew. I am not the same, nor should I be.’
Elizabeth’s heart broke for her friend. ‘I cannot imagine the pain of your parting, or the burden you now bear. This is why you empathise so well with Jane’s situation. Sense versus emotion.’
Anne stirred in her chair. ‘I may understand, but how I wish I had acted differently. My decision has been long repented, and I would not wish that for your sister.’
‘So much sadness, when one ought to be the happiest of beings.’
‘Some things are simply not meant to be.’ Anne summoned a smile. ‘But there is hope for you, Lizzy. Have you…did you ever meet someone whom you could consider attaching yourself to?’
Elizabeth’s thoughts immediately went to Mr Wickham. He was charming, handsome, and his circumstances made him excessively interesting to her. She felt for him, had even defended him to Mr Darcy, despite it being a match that would bring little comfort to Elizabeth’s family or any promise of security.
‘There was someone in Hertfordshire who held my interest, and there is some similarity to your circumstances in that he is in a volatile profession with no connections to further…’ Elizabeth drew in a sharp breath. This was no time for thinking about Mr Darcy’s disservice to his childhood friend. ‘But there is an end to it.’
Elizabeth released Anne’s hand before getting to her feet, noting the untouched tray of food on a side table.
‘Can you not eat a morsel? Sip a little wine? I shall leave you to your rest.’
‘Thank you, dear Lizzy. You are a great comfort. We can talk some more on the morrow.’
Darcy walked with Georgiana to the foot of the stairs, where he dropped a kiss on the top of her head, and she embraced him before heading up to her room.
After she disappeared from view, he turned to survey the empty hall. What now? It would be days before Colonel Fitzwilliam returned. With no estate to oversee, which kept him fully occupied when in Derbyshire, and none of the social commitments of Town, Darcy had little else to occupy his thoughts aside from the next Uppercross shoot. Other than Elizabeth Bennet.
Darcy blew out a frustrated breath. Little else indeed. Unless…
‘No, damn it. You will not contemplate such a thing!’ He spoke the words aloud, as though doing so would clear his mind, but his mind was no fool.
Darcy headed for his study, slamming the door behind him. Then, he crossed to the hearth, grabbed a poker and gave the logs a severe prodding.
It was insufficient to relieve his feelings. Returning to the desk, Darcy flipped open the diary, running a finger down the page to the date of his cousin’s anticipated return. How the devil was he going to occupy himself in the interim?
Much as Darcy loved his sister, there were many years between them, and though she was fast becoming an adult, they were hardly ideal company for each other. Was that not why he had engaged her companion?
No, Darcy. You engaged Mrs Annesley as someone to watch over her. The woman is even older than you are. What could they possibly have in common beyond their sex?
It was true. The lady was old enough to be Georgiana’s mother. Should he have engaged someone who was closer to her in age, more like a sister? What young lady would have the wisdom and caring to guide Georgiana where she needed it most and also give her the best of company and amusement?
Elizabeth… The name whispered through his mind, and Darcy closed the diary and dropped into the chair at his desk before lowering his head into his hands.
Whence had it come, this…obsession with the lady? No answer came to him, and he straightened. Why was he consumed with when he might next see Elizabeth? What reason could he give for calling at the Hall?
Darcy walked over to the tray of spirits, fully replenished since the colonel’s attack upon it, and poured himself a brandy, swirling the amber liquid around the glass as he took a seat by the hearth.
And what of Georgiana? With her health improving, she needed fresh air to aid her recovery. Her introduction to the ladies of Kellynch had now taken place, but she had yet to meet the head of the household. Was it not incumbent upon them to return the ladies’ call, and were they not already a day late in doing so?
Darcy took a slug from his glass, confident in the scheme as the liquid burned a trail down his throat.
Tomorrow, he was for Kellynch.
Chapter Fourteen can be found HERE!!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton